Friday morning Henry Kissinger took questions at the annual corporate conference of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The room was packed.
Kissinger of course is an iconic figure in the history of foreign affairs, a statesman and historian of statesmanship. He will be 90 soon but he’s taken the opposite of the usual trajectory of those formerly in power. Normally the longer you’ve been from high office the smaller you seem. Kissinger has retained his gravity and presence, and his foreign-policy mystique has in fact grown since he left the secretary of state’s office in 1977. In part this may be because he thinks about, writes about and supports the idea that great nations need grand strategies. In the modern political environment leaders often lose a sense of higher strategy in the demands of the day-to-day. Crises pop up and must be dealt with, public opinion demands focus here and then there, decisions are made quickly. Strategic coherence and continuity are shattered. Long-term thinking comes to seem an indulgence that no longer applies. And yet it is crucial. You have to know where you’re going and why.
From my notes:
On negotiations between nations: “Americans have a tendency to look at negotiations as a psychiatric problem.” Do the negotiators like each other, is the personal chemistry good?
Interviewer Charlie Rose: “You don’t believe that.”
Kissinger: “No.” Nations attempt to act in what they perceive to be their best interests.
Later: “It is best to begin a negotiation telling the other side what you want. It saves a lot of time.”
On Iran: President Obama will likely have to make a decision “in the next 12 months.” Iran is trying to develop a nuclear program; they think it will provide them “a safety net” but instead it will likely bring destabilization as others scramble to be similarly armed. For Israel, “it would be an existential decision to go to war.” When Kissinger speaks to Israeli political figures, he asks them to visualize for him not the day of a decision to move on Iran but the aftermath—“the next 30 days.”
Charlie Rose: “What do they answer?”
Kissinger: “I don’t think they’ve thought about it deeply.”
Do they think somebody else will take care of that scenario? Not just the U.S., said Kissinger, but maybe Russia.
It is possible Israel will move and Iran will start “harassing the Straits of Hormuz.” It is possible Israel will move and Iran will do nothing. “But you can’t base your decision on that hope.”
America would like Iran to be “a nation, not a cause”—a nation that in time could be our ally. Some say if a different regime came to power in Teheran we might face a different reality. Kissinger does not agree. A nuclearized Iran would be a new force and fact in the region, and others would inevitably seek nuclear weapons.
The question American policy makers will have to face in the coming year: “Is the present level of enrichment acceptable?”
On Syria: “Someone who chooses ophthalmology as a career is not a man driven by huge concepts of state.” President Bashar Assad’s father would have been ruthless too in similar circumstances, but also “more skilled in diplomacy.”
“It would be better if Assad left,” Kissinger said. America’s concern is to have “a non-radical outcome.” The question is what Syria would look like after the fall of Assad. “In the abstract, an outcome that permits the various ethnic groups a certain autonomy” is desirable.
We should be aware of Russia’s anxieties. “They are genuinely worried about the spread of radicalism,” he said. “Radicalism that would fall from Syria would reach them first.”
“If we can make a strategic agreement with Russia, we would have to take it to the Arab world.”
“Whatever we do . . . in my life we’ve had four wars which we entered with great enthusiasm and did not know how to end.” We want an outcome that takes account of “humanitarian concerns” and “is not radical.” We should do what we can “short of American ground forces.”
On Egypt: Rose asked what are the consequences of the Islamic government in Cariro. Kissinger: “Nothing is more boring than someone who says, ‘I told you so.’ But I told you so.” This was met with laughter.
What should we have done when President Hosni Mubarak appeared to be falling? “We should have behaved in a manner more respectful. . . . It was not necessary for our people to go on TV and announce Mubarak must leave.”
How should one interpret the revolution? There are democratic revolutions and historic revolutions. “Historic revolutions tend to represent a coming together of resentments” and leave destruction in their wake.
The Egyptian military and the Islamists are the two elements that will emerge. “The nice people from Facebook and Google knew how to get people to a square. They didn’t know what to do afterwards.”
There will eventually be “a showdown between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.” The Islamist government may be there to stay. The question for America: “Can we attach conditions to our support?”
On North Korea: If you look at something that could start a real war, North Korea is “near the top of the list.” For the Chinese, North Korea is of great strategic and symbolic importance. They took on the U.S. there during the Korean War, in the first year of Mao’s government. What he fears is that the North Korean regime “has brutality but no philosophy—it is a family enterprise.” The regime may last 10 years but someday something is going to happen that may lead to its collapse. This in turn could set off “terrible events.” “It is a fundamentally untenable situation.”
On China: He warns against “the tendency of Americans to pay attention to the personality” of individual leaders. China’s new leaders all lived through the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. Whether prisoners or prison-keepers, they were formed by that event, forged in the same national trauma. Because of this, “in crisis they may act with greater insistence than the previous group.” The new government may decide it needs a decade to sort out such problems as internal corruption and economic dislocation. They need time to work one these internal issues. But “some strange or surprising occurrence” could disturb this. The tensions between China and Japan over disputed islands in the China Sea “is one of these stupid issues that could escalate and draw us into the conflict because there’s no obvious answer.”
On Turkey: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “in my opinion is an Islamist by conviction.” He makes no secret of this, never has. He wants to “re-create Turkish influence.” He looks at Israel as “a metaphor for America” and is carrying on an anti-American foreign policy without attacking America. His government has expanded its influence in every sphere of Turkish life and broken the military.
On Chancellor Angela Merkel: “She is formidable. She is not by nature daring, but “she moves crab-wise toward daring objectives.”
He asks if a program of European austerity imposed by Germany is a manageable enterprise. “Will it really produce growth?” If not, what financial demands will the German political system be able to sustain? The question comes down to “How to have political union in Europe without full economic union.” Could Merkel achieve this? Yes.
On the Obama administration’s foreign policy: “They are skillful in handling tactical aspects of situations.” But “they have not been able to put this together into a strategic overview of where we’re going.” “I don’t think they’re disliked but they’re not fully trusted anywhere. Nobody knows where they’re going.”